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Dinosaurs of the Classroom

June 21, 2003

The things some teachers have to worry about these days:

"Help, I think my clawed frog has dropsy," reads one chat-room posting at www.teachers.net. Another: "My betta is despondent ... not hungry." "Chinchillas do not smell like a guinea pig."

There's nothing to focus a teacher's worry like a problem with a classroom pet beloved by every student, including the child who's allergic to dander. Or the one whose parents will sue if a gerbil bites. Or the trouble an instructor can get into by saying the mascot that died yesterday went to hamster heaven. A victim of modern anxiety, including worry about exotic viruses such as monkeypox, the classroom pet is becoming politically incorrect.

The Environmental Protection Agency has guidelines these days for indoor air quality in classrooms, and they frown on small beasts. The American Lung Assn. offers an equally cautionary note, given concerns about allergies and asthma. (Thus the classroom cachet of furless and featherless Betta splendens, or Siamese fighting fish.)

School administrators fear litigious parents. Humane societies worry about the animals themselves, squeezed by too many eager little hands, sent from one child's house to another and often dumped at the end of the school year. Several rescue groups will not place pets with a classroom.

Common sense -- checking on students' allergies, assuring humane treatment -- could address these reasonable concerns. Instead, the classroom pet is becoming as much a pariah as a whole-language reading textbook.

The Saugus Union School District in Santa Clarita forbade classroom pets several years ago over classroom air pollution issues. The Palm Beach County Health Department in Florida has recommended a pet ban for the 165,000-student school district there. After a rat bite led to legal action, the Capistrano Unified School District, in south Orange County, this year banned any animal that isn't specifically required for the science curriculum.

The latest entry is the Washington School District in Pennsylvania, which is considering kicking out not just pets but plants too. They contribute to classroom dirt.

So do grassy schoolyards. Come to think of it, kids are hairy creatures and major dirt contributors. Why, if we clean up the classroom enough, we might not have to worry about educating anyone anymore.

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